Development camp has become a staple of the Penguins' offseason schedule, as much a part of summer as the NHL Draft and free agency.
But the camp's purpose and format have evolved over the years. No longer do team officials use it simply to assess prospects whose rights they already own; now, they also try to identify and evaluate players with no professional ties who could mature into assets for the franchise.
"(Development camps) got started more to keep an eye on your prospects, the kids that you've drafted," Bill Guerin told DKPittsburghSports.com over the past weekend in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Educating them about offseason training, nutrition, being a pro, all those things. And that still stands true. That's still what we do. That's probably the biggest thing.
"But now, it's turned into kind of a showcase for the team (to attract) certain kids who will be free agents, either college or junior. You invite them, you bring them in and say, 'Hey, look. We're the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is what we're all about. This is what we can offer you.' You create a relationship with these players and if things work out in the end, hopefully that relationship will carry you through to a player."
Attracting promising free agents is particularly important for the Penguins because management's win-now philosophy has routinely led to trades that cost the team draft choices, especially first-rounders, that are needed to keep its pool of prospects well-stocked.
Forty-one players are scheduled to participate in this year's camp, which will begin Wednesday at the Penguins' practice facility in Cranberry. Fifteen are Penguins' draft choices -- including forwards Samuel Poulin, Nathan Legare, Judd Caulfield and Valtteri Puustinen and defenseman Santeri Airola, all of whom were selected last weekend -- and a few have minor-league contracts, but 18 others are unaffiliated and will be trying to convince Jim Rutherford and his staff that they have pro potential.
Indeed, even the guys whose rights the Penguins already hold will be looking to prove that they are worthy of a contract.
"(Development camp) is when you learn (about them)," Guerin said. "We can go and watch them play and we can see their on-ice attributes, but (camp is) when you really get to know the character of a person. What they lack on the ice, they might make up for with character, with personality, with leadership, things like that. Those are the things you really do learn."
Center Adam Johnson is a prototype of the kind of prospect the Penguins hope to turn up during the camp.
He was signed out of Minnesota-Duluth after a strong showing at the camp two years ago, and he put up 18 goals and 25 assists in 67 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season. He also contributed a pair of assists in six NHL games.
"We go into our development camp and rookie tournament (in September) hoping that we can sign somebody," Rutherford said. "We’re actually looking for somebody to jump out at us."
Johnson wasn't the only player to do that in 2017. The Penguins also signed center Jordy Bellerive and left winger Sam Miletic after that year's camp, and added goalie Alex D'Orio following that year's prospects tournament.
"We did three guys (from the camp) in one year," Rutherford said. "And we like those guys."
Players have less time to get noticed, let alone signed, than they did in the early years of the camp, because it doesn't run as long as it once did.
"When it first started, we were at a solid week, seven days," Guerin said. "Tommy Fitzgerald and I worked together on the whole thing. Over the years, we've shortened it, because we've also realized that the players are back home, they're working out with trainers, and we don't want to interrupt that.
"We want to put as little interruption in that as possible, but also still get to showcase ourselves, have the camp and create the relationship. With the three days or 3 1/2 days we do, we still get the most out of it, with the same effect. We've lightened it up. It used to be real competitive, physical. We don't want anybody getting hurt."
The on-ice portion of this year's camp will begin with a pair of sessions Wednesday afternoon. The first will begin at 1:30, the second at 3:15.
Workouts Thursday will focus on skills development and will begin at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. Camp will conclude with a four-team, three-on-three tournament Friday at 7 p.m.
All on-ice sessions, including the tournament, are open to the public.
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